By Jose Saldana
Coming off a disappointing loss against USC, No. 19 Stanford football (1-1) travels even further south of Los Angeles to play the San Diego State Aztecs (2-0) on Saturday night.
The Cardinal defense will need to recalibrate after giving up 307 rushing yards (and 623 yards of total offense) to the Trojans. It will have to face another explosive running attack with Aztecs running back Rashaad Penny in the backfield.
Penny, a 5-foot-11 and 220-pound powerful tailback, has been one of the best rushers in the nation to start the season. And after the porous display against the Trojans run game, Stanford head coach David Shaw knows exactly what the Aztecs game plan will be.
“[The Aztecs are] going to run right at us, they’re going to be physical, and they’re going to play hard and fast,” Shaw said. “They’re a very aggressive team on both sides of the ball. We’ve got to make sure that we’re the same.”
The defense might have trouble stopping Penny — the nation’s leader in rushing yards per game (206.5) and all-purpose yards (284). Coach Shaw agrees that the defense needs to improve.
“The issue was the play of our front seven,” Shaw said. “It was a combination of USC playing really well and us making some mistakes and them taking advantage of those mistakes.”
The Cardinal have their own mercurial runner in junior running back Bryce Love. He started strong against the Trojans with 141 rushing yards in the first half, including a 75-yard touchdown score in the opening quarter. He’s averaging an absurd 11.3 yards-per-carry this season. Whenever the offensive line makes a hole, Love bursts through it with his world-class speed.
“He’s running really hard and seeing things well,” fifth-year senior left tackle David Bright said of Love. “We just have to give him those opportunities to find holes and lanes.”
The offensive line wasn’t able to give Love many of those opportunities in the second half against USC as the Trojans focused on stopping the run.
The offensive line’s performance as a whole last week was deservedly criticized as it could not help senior quarterback Keller Chryst throw in a clean pocket for a majority of the game.
Shaw will start either senior offensive tackle A.T. Hall, who didn’t start the first two games, or sophomore Devery Hamilton, the incumbent, at the right tackle spot, but if either struggles in pass protection, then Shaw might go with true freshman Walker Little.
Shaw thinks it’s still a work in progress.
“We’re going to look at a lot of things,” said Shaw of the offensive line. “We’ve got a lot of experience there, but at the same time, we’ve got some youth and ability. So we’re going to look at a couple combinations and see how that bears out at the end of the week.”
The line might have some trouble against an opportunistic Aztecs defense.
Against Arizona State, San Diego State sacked the Sun Devils quarterback Manny Wilkins five times and had nine tackles for loss. The Sun Devils don’t have a good offensive line but a poor day from the Cardinal offensive line could lead to forced throws by Chryst where the Aztecs secondary could do what it does best — intercept the ball or cause a fumble.
The Aztecs propensity for turnovers comes from their distinct defensive formations.
“It’s a very unique, structured defense,” Shaw said of the Aztecs defense. “They essentially have three safeties and two corners. There’s late rotation, and a lot of different types of blitzes. They’ve been able to attack people’s protections and put quarterbacks under duress and make inaccurate throws.”
However, San Diego State might have a hard time causing a turnover as Stanford has been one of the best teams in the nation at not turning the ball over. After the USC game, the Cardinal have now gone a program-best six games without a turnover.
Senior cornerback Alijah Holder, who had an interception last week, will have extra at stake against the Aztecs. His brother Mikah is a wide receiver for San Diego State and will probably be lined up against each other a few times during the game.
“I’ve had mixed feelings about it,” Holder said of facing his brother Mikah. “I’ve never competed against my brother, seriously, so it’s something very new to me. At the same time, this is going to be an incredible experience.”
The Cardinal will seek another “W” in the win column against the Aztecs in Qualcomm Stadium on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.
Contact Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.